From a traumatic childhood in care, to being a celebrated author; poet Lemn Sissay’s story is both heartbreaking and galvanising. Miranda Sawyer is swept away by this surprising force of nature
Poet Lemn Sissay talks about his traumatic childhood, and why he won’t be defined as a ‘survivor’
Lemn Sissay is not your everyday poet. He’s not your everyday man. At the Red shoot, he quickly makes everyone his friend: photographer, stylist, make-up artist, assistants, even the chef at the café where we have lunch. The air is filled with his big laugh. A charming, gregarious, generous personality, Sissay is a man, according to Kirsty Young who interviewed him on Desert Island Discs, who can “hold a room”. He’s a poet in the same way that a pop star is a singer. Poetry is his gift, but it’s his personality that captivates.
Sometimes, when performing on stage, he lists his achievements. His MBE for services to literature, two university doctorates, being the official poet for the London 2012 Olympics and the Chancellor for Manchester University. He’s won a BAFTA, made BBC documentaries, been artist-in-residence at the Southbank Centre… He says all of these accomplishments out loud, not to show off, but to make them real. There were no family members at any of the ceremonies. “The landmarks aren’t the same without family,” he says to me. He calls his poems “flags in the mountainside”. He writes them to prove what has happened to him, “to mark where I have been”.
In 1966, Sissay’s Ethiopian mum, Yemarshet, then
21, arrived in Britain. She was pregnant. Social workers persuaded her to give birth in Lancashire and hand over her child to be adopted. Though she refused to sign adoption papers, when Sissay was born, in May 1967, he was given to foster parents in Wigan – childless at that point – who were told to treat him as their own. He was brought up as Norman Greenwood, their eldest son.
His childhood, says Sissay, was “idyllic” until he was 12, when the Greenwoods decided they didn’t want him any more. Without warning or explanation, he was put into a children’s care home, cast out by the only family he’d ever had, sent to a school where he knew nobody. The people he called Mum and Dad never voluntarily saw him again. Every time he ran away home, they sent him back.
During his teens, Sissay was moved from care home to care home. Four in total, the last of which, Wood End, was an assessment centre for juvenile delinquents. He was put there for pouring three tiny tins of Airfix paint out of his bedroom window. He was meant to be in Wood End for two weeks, but he was kept there for 10 months, where he suffered physical abuse. Then, at 18, he was kicked out, after being given his birth certificate and adoption papers. This was the first time he saw his birth mother’s name, and the name she’d given him: Lemn Sissay.
“I’ve been called a survivor,” he says, as we munch through chicken and salad. “And I think, ‘Really? That’s how you want to define me?’ Is that the measuring stick? Because that can’t be good enough. Survivor isn’t enough.”
SISSAY’S STORY HAS MADE HIM THE PERSON HE IS TODAY: A LOT MORE THAN A SURVIVOR.
For a start, he’s had to discover what that story is for himself. As soon as he got his adoption papers, he began a search for Yemarshet, who he found in the Gambia when he was 21. Their meeting did not go particularly well. He also tracked his birth father, and discovered he’d died in
1972. His encounters with his father’s side of the family weren’t pleasant, either. And then, four years ago, he made contact with his foster parents. Once more, it wasn’t the easiest of reunions. “Put it this way,” he says. “I have an enormous family now. I’ve made contact with all of them. But I don’t see any of them at Christmas.”
But, at Christmas, Sissay is always busy. In 2013, he set up a Christmas dinner in Manchester for young people who had come out of the care system. It was a success and, last year, there were Christmas dinners in Manchester, London, Leeds, Oxford and Liverpool. He is proud of how well the dinners are going. “Christmas can be the worst time for a kid who has left care, it was for me, and nobody was doing anything about that,” he says. “Because the conversation with the system is always curated by the system. Say you’re in an institution. You leave the institution and set up a lobby group that lobbies
the institution, but it lobbies the institution in exactly the way the institution wants it to do. This is where punk rock comes in.” He means that if you want to change how a terrible scheme affects those inside it, you don’t change small things about it; you reject the whole thing and offer an alternative. Hence, the Christmas dinners.
Rejecting the system isn’t easy. You need drive and luck. Plus, racism and rootlessness can be subtle oppressors. Sissay struggled against the assumption that what he does is ‘street’ poetry, jumped-up rap. He can recall another writer telling him, “You get all the good gigs because you’re black.” And when he did a spot of TV presenting in his twenties, a crew member introduced him to someone saying, “This is
Lemn, he hates white people.”
Sissay’s earliest memories, he says, are all golden. He grew up playing in the park, going to church, holidaying in Butlin’s. The Greenwoods spent most of their holidays in Scotland, among aunts and uncles and cousins. He loved it, as he loved life. “I thought everyone smiled,” he says. “Only later did I realise that they were smiling because I was smiling at them.”
His parents were very religious and, when they sent him away, they did so because they believed he was bringing the devil into their home. Sissay was hitting adolescence, testing boundaries by coming home later than was allowed, taking biscuits from the tin without asking. Hardly the devil’s work, unless all teenagers are the sons and daughters of Satan. But too much for the Greenwoods who, by this point, had three younger children of their own. Even though they had always told Sissay that they were his ‘forever family’.
Over the years that he has gone public with his story, the Greenwoods never got in touch. It was Sissay who contacted them again, in 2012. A meeting was set up, with, he thought, his mum and siblings; but they brought all the aunts and uncles (“my aunt was looking daggers at me”) and made him go to his uncle’s church. Still, he managed to tell his mum (his foster dad had died) that he forgave her. She said, “I can breathe again”, and told him that her own mother had hated her. He said, “Do you think I don’t know?” A healing of sorts. He says that it was only once he’d forgiven the Greenwoods that he could recall his early childhood. Up until then those years were blank.
“Since forgiving them properly,” he says, “a big weight has lifted off my shoulders. Because, where does all that lack of forgiveness go to? It goes to your partner. It goes in your gut, it goes in your behaviour, it goes into the fact you can’t let people close to you… You feel like you have something to defend and you’ve no idea what it is.”
The care home that the Greenwoods sent him to was run mostly by ex-army officers. Their rules were petty, enforced by violence. Sissay fought, though he wasn’t a fighter; he cried sometimes. “And all the time I was crying, I was thinking: ‘You have no idea why
I’m crying. You think it’s because it’s x, y and z, but you don’t know. You’re just containing me’.”
Once he was out of the system, he began to sell his poetry. Dole money funded the printing of his poems. His creative work was funding his life work; his life work was finding his mother. Yemarshet had married a minister of Haile Selassie’s government and was forced to flee when Selassie was deposed. When Sissay finally met Yemarshet in the Gambia, she embraced him and said, “Can we not talk about this? I have a visitor.” She also told him to tell her other children that he was their cousin.
Sissay was hurt by her behaviour, though he now accepts it. He told his siblings who he was in 1996.
There were similar problems with his father’s family, who he met in New York around the same time. “What I realised is that family is about secrets,” he says. “It’s about holding information back because you know a family member might not cope. You have to live with that. The best thing you can do when you find your family, is to let them go. I’ve done that. All I wanted was for them to find me.”
HIS STORY IS TRAUMATIC, BUT IT’S NOT OUR PITY THAT SISSAY NEEDS.
It’s our respect. And he has that. In fact, he says, he enjoys himself “now more than I ever did. I look at my life and it’s been quite incredible.” He laughs his big laugh. “I mean, I’m known in Ethiopia now! I’ve done so much of what I wanted to do at 18. If you aim for the top of the tree, you’ll get to the first branch. But if you aim for the sky, you get to the top of the tree. I’m happy.”
Also, I say, there is another way to see your story now. It’s full of family! There are so many people involved, it might as well be Game Of Thrones. Sissay laughs. It
makes me wonder why he has no children of his own.
It’s the obvious way to make a family.
“I made a decision at 18,” he says, “that I wouldn’t have children until I’d found my family and my story. I had to find the evidence to construct a true story. I couldn’t pass a false one on to my kid.”’ But you have your story now, I point out. “Yes,” he says. “And maybe if I’d have had a kid, would everything have been all right and wonderful? I made a decision, and now I look at myself and I’m 49, single, and I think, wow, the boy who didn’t have a family has ended up not having a family.”
He would love to have children, he says. But he’s not in the right place. He had a 13-year relationship that ended a couple of years ago, and he’s single, for now. This seems ludicrous to me, and I find myself urging him to settle down. Make his own family, let them help construct his future story. “Ha!” he says. “What a great gift that would be! Are you going to sort out my love life?”
Yes, I say. Ladies, Lemn Sissay is a catch. Over to you.
Gold From The Stone by Lemn Sissay (Canongate, £12.99)
If you AIM for the top of the TREE, you’ll get to the first branch. But if you aim for the SKY, you get to the top of the tree
Lemn Sissay with his foster family